Doctor Robert Knox, the anatomist who received his specimens from Burke and Hare, was born on the 4th of September, 1791.
Robert Knox MD, FRCSEd, FRSEd, was the anatomist and ethnologist who shall forever be linked with the gruesome tale of Burke and Hare. He appears a man of contradiction. On the one hand, he was the distinguished Lecturer in Anatomy at the University of Edinburgh and the leading teacher at Barclay’s School of Anatomy, which regularly attracted record levels of students. He was also an enthusiast of practical dissection who required a steady supply of ‘subjects’. I guess that when Burke and Hare offered him a ready supply of fresh cadavers, it was just too good an offer to refuse. When that gruesome and macabre scandal was discovered during 1828, Knox was implicated, but he was not summoned to give evidence. No doubt the ubiquitous ‘they’, the under-evidenced shadowy figures that inhabit the imagination of conspiracy theorists everywhere, saw to it that he was not involved. Knox claimed never to have met either of the two murderers, but certain of his assistants including perhaps William Fergusson, certainly did. Hare turned King’s evidence whilst Knox tried to keep a low profile; not as low as poor old Burke, who was hanged and dissected. The feelings of the populace were made clear when an angry mob demonstrated outside his home in Newington and he was vilified by his soon to be ex-colleagues. His rivals surely took some pleasure in his downfall and as a result of his decline, he became the Conservator at the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. Later, in 1842, he moved to London and, in 1856 became a pathological anatomist at the Royal Marsden Cancer Hospital at Brompton.
Robert Knox was born in Edinburgh on the 4th of September, 1791. He contracted smallpox at an early age, which left him disfigured and with no sight in his left eye. Later, he became known as ‘Old Cyclops’ – or maybe that’s just an apocryphal tale. He was educated at what is now the Royal High School, in Edinburgh, where he had a brilliant scholastic record amongst notable contemporaries such as Francis Horner, Henry Brougham and Henry Cockburn. In 1810, before moving on to the Medical Faculty of Edinburgh University and as a special prize for academic excellence and exemplary conduct, he received a Folio volume of the works of Virgil from the Lord Provost and Town Council of Edinburgh. As an undergraduate he achieved the remarkable distinction of being twice elected to the Presidency of the Royal Physical Society, but strangely, in view of his subsequent career, he failed in Anatomy in his first examination, before graduating, in 1814, with degree of M. D. His recovery was due to having joined the extra-mural Anatomy class of the famous anatomist, Dr John Barclay, who became Knox’s mentor. Knox acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of human and comparative anatomy from Barclay and, in 1815, he produced his first scientific paper for the Edinburgh Medical Journal.
In 1821, Knox spent some time in Paris, studying under several of the greatest names in medical science; men such as Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Back in Edinburgh, in 1822, Knox took up the post of assistant to Barclay until that man’s death, whereupon Knox became the main man. His widespread fame as a teacher led to his classes having to be repeated three times a day and, by 1827-8, there were over five hundred students enrolled. His ‘entertaining’ lectures, where students were guaranteed to see the human body completely dissected, were in marked contrast to the dullness of some of his rivals, particularly ‘Tertius’ Monro. Not surprisingly, he aroused jealousies amongst those contemporaries, which his intellectual arrogance only served to exacerbate.
Discounting his lapse in getting involved with the ‘resurrectionists’ (grave robbers by a posh name) Knox should occupy a more distinguished place in the illustrious history of the Edinburgh Medical School. He had the attributes of genius and became a rival to Alexander Monro ‘Tertius’, third of yon Ilk, but instead of lasting fame, he got infamy almost to the same extent as Sweeney Todd or Jack the Ripper. A man of several failings, the arrogant Knox had been an army surgeon at Waterloo and in South Africa during the fifth Kaffir War, and was convinced he was the best anatomist in Edinburgh. Nevertheless, during his chequered career, he contributed many important articles to the Edinburgh Medical Journal. These covered a remarkable variety of subjects including the pathology of necrosis, the regeneration of bone, pericarditis and the treatment of tapeworm infestation. In the field of ophthalmic anatomy, Knox was the first to appreciate the role of the ciliary muscle and to recognise that it is a muscle and not a ligament. In 1823, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and, in 1860, he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Ethnological Society of London. Shortly before his death in 1862, he was made Honorary Curator of that Society’s museum. When all is said and done, it could be claimed that he was one of the greatest medical teachers of all time.
A further aspect of the flaws in the character of Knox, appeared in 1846, when he almost obsessively put forward his anti-Semitic theories on ‘The races of men’. His ethnological theories originated from his anatomical studies of the indigenous peoples of South Africa during his time in Cape Province. Such racial theories had no scientific validity and were akin to those nasty Nazi doctrines or even to those of Apartheid. Funnily enough, compounding the contradictions in Knox the man, he maintained strong condemnation of the effects of European colonialism upon Africa. He was also a keen amateur violinist who enjoyed the works of Schubert and Rossini and his violin is on display in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons.
Robert Knox worked at the Royal Marsden Cancer Hospital right up until the day he died, which was the 10th of December, 1862, and as a result of a major stroke sustained during his sleep. He had no memorial until 1966, when a granite stone was erected by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. The simple inscription states, “Robert Knox – Anatomist 1791-1862”, however, a more fitting epitaph may be his own words, “I would rather be the discoverer of one fact in science than have a fortune bestowed upon me.”